June 25, 2014 / 7:05 PM / 4 years ago

January trial set in Montana killing of German exchange student

MISSOULA Mont. (Reuters) - A Montana man who admitted to police he shot and killed a 17-year-old German exchange student who entered his garage will go on trial in January in a case expected to test the state’s “castle doctrine” self-defense law, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

Missoula District Judge Ed McLean set a Jan. 5 trial date for Markus Kaarma, who is charged with deliberate homicide in the death of Diren Dede of Hamburg, who authorities said was killed while “garage hopping” in Missoula in a possible search for alcohol. Kaarma is free on a $30,000 bond pending trial.

German officials have expressed outrage at the killing and the teen’s father suggested to a German news agency that U.S. gun culture was at least partly to blame for his son’s death.

Defense attorney Paul Ryan has said his client would invoke Montana’s “castle doctrine” as a defense, which allows use of force to defend against a home invasion if the person inside reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent an assault.

State legislation places the burden of proof for “justifiable use of force” with prosecutors, Ryan said.

On the night of the shooting, Dede and a fellow exchange student from Ecuador were walking along the street when Dede approached Kaarma’s garage, the Ecuadorean told police in an affidavit. The student assumed Dede was looking for alcohol.

Kaarma was alerted to Dede’s presence by motion sensors and a video monitor installed after recent burglaries.

Prosecutors say he walked outside and fired a shotgun into his darkened garage, killing Dede, who had been visiting Montana for a single school term and staying with a host family two houses away.

Kaarma, 29, has pleaded not guilty and could receive a prison sentence of between 10 and 100 years if convicted. His defense team asked on Wednesday for better access to witnesses and evidence being analyzed at the state’s crime lab.

In briefs filed Tuesday, defense attorneys cited problems gaining access to witnesses, saying appointments were broken with a private investigator hired to interview two witnesses because they had been instructed not to speak with defense investigators unless prosecutor Andrew Paul was present.

In court, McLean said witnesses may exercise their right to have the prosecutor present but county attorneys may not block interview attempts. Defense attorneys also asked for intervention to ensure timely access to crime scene evidence.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott

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